Tai (Hsiu-Shen Liang, billed in America as Charles Lang), a humble fisherman in ancient China, seeks to better himself by reading as many books as he can find. If this were a Disney animated film he would probably sing a song about "wanting more." But it is not, so poor Tai has to put up with being belittled by his fellow fishermen. Along with his comely neighbour Jasmine (Hoi Si-Man) and her smug, frankly creepily possessive brother. Then one day two magical artifacts: the Magic Vessel of Plenty and the Bamboo Book of All Knowledge fall down from heaven and wind up in Tai’s hands. Overnight Tai utilizes their awesome magic to transform himself into a wealthy scholar. With his newfound wealth Tai sets about helping others, buying a fancy restaurant to treat his neighbours to a free meal. Yet Tai’s generosity and popularity among the villagers does not impress Jasmine or her brother. They dismiss his frivolous antics ("Money without hard work is worthless") and vow to have nothing to do with him. If right now you’re thinking "self-righteous pricks", you are not the audience for this movie.
Anyway Tai has far bigger problems to contend with. His magic wish-granting items make him a target for avaricious assassins. In a hilarious gag, each kung fu killer arrives on the scene, sporting outrageous attire and outlandish names to match, only to off each other before Tai learns what they want. Luckily, pretty yellow-clad martial arts maiden Violet (Terry Hu) and her equally alluring pink-clad sister Hyacinth (Chow Chi-Ming) jump in and save Tai’s ass. Instantly smitten with his beautiful bodyguards, Tai impulsively offers to marry them both! Which was something you could do in ancient China. Unfortunately en route to their wedding ceremony, Violet and Hyacinth are zapped with cartoon laser beams by two elderly wizards. A frantic Tai uses his own magic to temporarily drive them away. For their part the wizards, who for whatever reason laugh nonsensically in every scene, warn Tai is blinded by lust. And clueless to what fate has in store.
Given this elaborate Taiwanese-Japanese co-production sports a decent budget, one cast member of some notoriety (more on him later) and scored an American theatrical release, its ongoing obscurity is something of a mystery. One imagines grindhouse patrons who caught War of the Wizards a.k.a. The Phoenix (not to be confused with the like-named Japanese film released the same year!) came away disappointed with the lack of kung fu action. Yet while Taiwanese co-director Chang Mei-Chun was certainly versed in the genre (among others he made the 3D outings Dynasty (1977) and Revenge of the Shogun Women (1977) along with kiddie kung fu romp Young Dragons: Kung Fu Kids (1986)), War of Wizards is not really a martial arts film. It has more in common with European fairytale films that occasionally made their way to English-speaking territories like the German-made The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) and Russia’s Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair (1969). Or even the handful of Arabian Nights adaptations that sprang up in the late Seventies like Arabian Adventure (1979) and the remake of The Thief of Baghdad (1978).
War of the Wizards was the last project for Japanese co-director and special effects creator Sadamasa Arikawa. A protégé of legendary effects man Eiji Tsuburaya, Arikawa worked on every Godzilla film from the first one in 1954 up to the late Sixties. Then after the latter’s death took charge of Toho’s special effects unit beginning with Space Amoeba (1970). He later worked in Hong Kong, handling monster and miniature effects on Shaw Brothers’ wild romp The Mighty Peking Man (1977). With Arikawa at the helm it is little wonder the latter half of War of the Wizards turns into a show-reel of archaic though nonetheless eye-catching visual effects. Set to an interesting prog rock score.
Before long Tai discovers his blushing brides want to steal his magic items for their boss: the Flower Fox (Betty Pei Ti, billed in America as Betty Noonan, best known for her stellar turn in Shaw’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972)), whom the dub insists is an "evil alien from outer space." However, Tai retains his compassion and sets out to save the sisters when they are imprisoned in Flower Fox’s cosmic lair. In a plot twist that prefigures Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) Tai ends up on Fairy Mountain where a wise Old Immortal turns him into a silver outfitted hero with mystical kung fu powers. He also wields a cool golden sword imbued with the power of the sun and thus able to shoot cartoon laser beams. Lots of surreal cel animated effects ensue. As do impressive miniature effects (in a sequence where a flood devastates Tai’s fishing village) and optical tricks like when Tai fights multiple versions of himself. Then there are the monsters. These include a slightly tatty-looking giant puppet phoenix, from whence the film gains its alternate title, and a more impressive rock monster.
The other ‘monster’ of note is played by American actor Richard Kiel. Then between stints as evil henchman Jaws in the James Bond films The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). Kiel actually had a side-career making cameos in Hong Kong films. Along with playing sidekick to Jackie Chan in Cannonball Run II (1984) Chinese film fans can see him in Tsui Hark’s Bond spoof Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street (1983) and action-comedy Mob Busters (1985). Here, dressed inexplicably like a genie from the Arabian Nights (remember what I said earlier?), Kiel sports invincible iron gloves and an ill-defined romantic obsession with Betty Pei Ti’s slinky sorceress (who seems decidedly uncomfortable about it). He also gamely embarrasses himself in a weird closing gag: flapping his arms, trying to fly.
As a fairytale adventure-cum-monster romp War of the Wizards is a lot of fun. Where it stumbles is as a morality play. The film is book-ended by an "ancient proverb" credited to no source in particular (read: bullshit) that goes: "He who desires to possess everything must be content with nothing." The inherent message of the story seemingly being that hard work and a studious attitude reap greater rewards than a get-rich-quick magic spell. Which is all well and good except Tai comes across thoroughly affable and decent even after being seemingly ‘corrupted’ by power. Kind and generous to a fault, he happily shares his wealth and use magic to right various wrongs wrought upon his impoverished neighbours. He even forgives the duplicitous Violet and Hyacinth and risks his life to save both, albeit motivated at least in part by the chance of a threesome. Nevertheless given Tai’s continuous good deeds and heroism, the would-be moralistic finale seems both undeserved and nonsensical. Especially wedded to the conceit of two hitherto ineffectual, lecherous supporting players reaping all the benefits of Tai’s heroism, including two clearly terrified looking young women. As morals go it’s pretty freaking weird.